Winter Wonderland: Amber City

Day 19
December 22nd
Today we had a long, wonderful day trip in Gdansk.

Founded in the 10th century, Gdansk is one of the oldest cities in Poland and was built upon older medieval and roman remains. From 1308 till 1454 it was part of the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights and even after being returned to Poland, has always been a place of vital trade and growing autonomy.

After WWI, the city state of the free city of Danzig emerged complete with it’s own stamps and currency (the Gulden). Then the german attack at Westerplatte ignited the start of WWII and the city was annexed by Germany in 1939. This led to Polish, Jewish and Kashubian minorities being persecuted, experimented upon and murdered in the Holocaust.

Post 1945 the German populace was expelled and the city which had been mostly destroyed, was rebuilt including new enormous ship yards. These became the main industry and was the place of the centre of Solidarity strikes in the 1980’s, leading to the end of communism in 1989. Modern Gdansk is still a focal point for the Polish. At the time of our visit it was still the light of hope, along with it’s mayor Pawel Adamowicz – a liberal critic of Poland’s ruling party.

We headed for the stunning old town. It is such a pretty area, with detailed architecture and buildings of various colours. Following are some sites of note…

The Great Mill

The mill (Wielki Mlyn) was Built by the Teutonic Knights in 1350. It is an impressive building. Until 1356, when the Radunia Canal was built, the mill was powered by slaves turning 18 huge wheels. It was the largest industrial plant in Europe during the Middle Ages and functioned until the end of WWII. It has been undergoing refurbishment for many years and now lovers locks line the iron railings of the canal.

The Market Hall

The beautiful old Baroque style market hall (Hala Taragowa) took two years to build and was completed in 1896. It suffered some damage during the wars and it’s current restoration was sompleted in 2009. The three level market hall has four entry gates and contains an interesting archaeological dig site. We took a chance to buy some fresh fruit and admire that natural Christmas decorations.

The Tower

Baszta Jacet stands 36 metres high and was once the highest defensive tower in the town.
Built around about 1400 this tower sustained damage during WW2 but was reconstructed post war and looks pretty amazing.

Amber Street

Walking down Mariacka Street (ulica Mariacka) is one of the great atmospheric highlights of Gdansk old town. All the houses with their great porches and quirky stone drainpipes are stunning, as are the myriad of glass cases containing amber jewellery and intricate carvings.

The Crane

This is what we had been longing to see. The multi-storey wooden Gdańsk Crane (Żuraw) originated in the 1300’s and contains one of eight sections of the National Maritime Museum. It has become an icon of Gdansk and is a fascinating reminder of it’s rich trading history.

The crane features two brick towers and a central crane mechanism, encased in a wooden structure. It was used for loading / unloading cargo plus placing masts on ships. We walked up a narrow staircase inside to get a close-up view of the hoisting gear and tread wheels. Men operated the crane by walking on these giant wheels which created enough energy to lift loads of up to 2,000 kilograms.

Prussian Hags

Little remains of old Prussian culture due to it being destroyed by the Teutonic Knights. What does remain are 21 stone statues scattered across the region and in international museums. Despite being depictions of men, the statues are referred to locally as Stara Baba Pruska or “Old Prussian Hags.”

Dating from the early middle ages, 21 statues have been recorded by sources dating back to the 1700s, but it was not until over a hundred years later that they began to be gathered up and placed into museums and put out for viewing and scholarly research. Several remain within the northern part of Poland: two in the city square of Bartoszyce, another two in the Museum of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn, one in the town hall courtyard in Toruń, and another embedded in the wall of a church in Prątnicy.

We were lucky to see the largest collection of these stone statues in one place, outside the Gdańsk Archeological Museum, that features four of the “hags” .

Traditional Polish Restaurant

We decided to meet our couchsurfing friend Vera plus friend, who were luckily staying near Gdansk, at a traditional Polish restaurant. Perhaps the most renowned of these, right on the famous Elblag canal, is the Gdański Bowke. The Bowke were casual labourers whose wages earned on the quayside would be often spent on local beer. Which is perhaps why this restaurant has created it’s own beer of the same name, served in a clay tankard. We were sure to try some.

It was a lovely surprise to see Vera again. She is a courageous girl from Indonesia. She couchsurfed at our home in Perth and by coincidence was holidaying here in Poland. So we just had to meet up. So here we were two girls from Asia and a family of Australians, at a Traditional Polish restaurant in Gdansk and we had the place all to ourselves – good times.

The Green Gate

The Green Gate is reminiscent of the Amsterdam central train station and is a magnificent four arched gatehouse on the waterfront. It was built 1568-71 as the formal residence of Poland’s monarchs. As it worked out, no king ever stayed but Lech Wałęsa had his office here before moving to the European Solidarity Centre.

It is a masterpiece by Regnier, a Dutch architect, and reflects Flemish architectural influence. The gate leads to the green bridge that spans the Motława River, hence the name. They say, this bridge used to be raised to stop undesirables from getting into the Old Town.

The Town Hall

This impressive Main Town Hall (Ratusz Głównego Miasta) is a Gothic-Renaissance structure originally built in the 14th century and painstakingly repaired following World War II. Built at the intersection of the Long Lane and Long Market, in the most popular part of Gdańsk, it now houses The History of Gdansk museum.

Next to it, is the popular meeting point of Neptunes fountain. Luckily, it was not destroyed during WWII, as it was taken apart, hidden and reconstructed, so we can still enjoy it today.

That’s a lot of Gdansk history to absorb and we had not yet scratched the surface. Yet, it was getting late and the sun goes down at 3pm here. So we went to a “milk bar” for a cheap, large, filling meal. We swooped by the Christmas markets despite the rain. Then home for some carol singing plus a game of “Blood, Sweat and Cheers”, before a well-earned slumber. Another amazing day in Poland…

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